Royal Dutch Shell plc is testing a new methane detection system at shale gas wells in central Alberta as part of a challenge backed by the Environmental Defense Fund.
The company has installed new detectors made by Colorado-based Quanta3 LLC that are expected to identify minute levels of leaking gas and increase Shell's ability to mitigate the emissions. The length of the pilot program and exact location of the wells, which are around Rocky Mountain House about 133 miles northwest of Calgary, Alberta, were not disclosed.
Shell said in an Aug. 9 statement that the program is part of its commitment to reduce well site emissions. Alberta and other jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada have begun to crack down on methane releases as part of wider efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While engineering standards require tight seals on natural gas wellheads, piping and processing equipment, small leaks may occur from aging or vibration. The problem has become more acute as companies have tapped high-pressure, high-volume shale wells that increase stress on equipment.
"This pilot shows we're serious about reducing the methane emissions associated with natural gas production to support the overall climate benefit of this fuel," Greg Guidry, Shell's executive vice president of unconventionals, said in the statement. "Shell is looking at all aspects of its operations, from equipment to processes, to assess and identify emission reduction opportunities."
The project falls under the Environmental Defense Fund's Methane Detectors Challenge, which aims to improve methane detection and reduce emissions. The challenge is a partnership among technology developers, producers and U.S. government agencies. Shell, which has sold most of its Canadian oil operations in recent years, also runs the Quest Carbon Capture project near Edmonton, Alberta, which buries emissions from its nearby Scotford oil sands upgrader and refinery.
"A new frontier of methane detection is coming, and Shell is helping to give us a glimpse of that future," Environmental Defense Fund Director Ben Ratner said in the statement. "The ultimate test will be whether the industry scales new tools and approaches to minimize wasteful methane emissions in North America and across the world."
Quanta3 has developed a laser-based detector that is capable of continuous monitoring of emissions and uploading data to cloud computing networks. Most current gas detectors are handheld cameras that identify the presence of gas using infrared technology. Because of the remote location of most Canadian well sites, continuous monitoring is not always possible. Shell's Houston-based upstream unit chose Rocky Mountain House partially because of its harsh climate, where temperatures can drop below minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit during winter months.
The Quanta3 system can detect leaks as small as 0.5 standard cubic feet per minute from 130 feet, according to the company's website. When a leak is detected, a message is sent to a control center that can dispatch an operator to the site.